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The Immune Response: Romanticism and the Radical Literary History of Smallpox Inoculation

  • Author(s): Wang, Fuson
  • Advisor(s): Makdisi, Saree
  • Mellor, Anne
  • et al.

My dissertation untangles the oxymoron of Romantic medicine. The literary history of inoculation, I contend, reveals that smallpox eradication was as much a triumph of the literary imagination as it was an achievement of Enlightenment science. Underlying this argument is the larger disciplinary question: Who counts as a producer of scientific knowledge? My project uncovers a surprisingly literary history of medicine that includes poetry and imaginative fiction in the discovery, propagation, and implementation of Edward Jenner's controversial discovery of the smallpox vaccine in 1796. Our own anti-vaccination campaigns recapitulate many of these same controversies. Most famously, Dr. Andrew Wakefield's bogus 1998 study linking MMR to autism compelled thousands of parents to deny their children this important vaccine. These biopolitical issues have only intensified in the globalized twenty-first century, and the debates about the large-scale management of disease depend on our literary-historical memory of the first vaccine scares and our attention to the narratives of those who lived through the alternatives of disfigurement, disease, and death.

My approach places metaphor and medical reality in the balance. I track the uses of inoculation from its botanical origins, to controversies about safety, to its potential to manage global plague, and finally to its nineteenth-century contraction into clinical propaganda. The first section handles inoculation's early history via John Milton's concept of virtuous trial in Comus, Areopagitica, and Paradise Lost. While John Dryden and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's smallpox poems employ metaphor as mere euphemism and concealment, Erasmus Darwin and William Blake begin to imagine Milton's tested virtue more explicitly as a kind of salubrious inoculation against the corruptions of disease. In my second section on Romantic-era poetry and prose, I argue that, for Blake, John Keats, and Mary Shelley, the metaphor of inoculation models both a revolutionary politics and a cosmopolitan ethics, materializing abstract theories of reform into a medically reproducible practice. I close with a third section on the Victorian endpoint of this radical discourse of inoculation and the consolidation of medical authority into the figure of the all-seeing detective in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Inoculation's long historical reach and unassailable record for saving lives demand that we continue to recover and to scrutinize these medical, literary, and political origins.

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